Travel photography in India with a Nikon Df and Zeiss Otus 55 by Sebastien Bey-Haut

Travel photography in India with a Nikon Df and Zeiss Otus 55

by Sebastien Bey-Haut

Dear Steve,

It’s always a great pleasure to be featured on your site so I’d like to share my experience on shooting a pretty unusual combo: a Nikon Df and a Zeiss Otus 55.

Why unusual? Simply because both camera and lens seem to follow really opposite paths:

– The Df is one of the smallest (if not smallest) and lightest Full Frame DSLR with a modest 16Mp resolution
– The Otus is the most gigantic and heavy 55mm ever produced for a DSLR and could certainly out-resolve a >50Mp sensor

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So, is it as a stupid pairing as it looks? I actually don’t think so, let’s look a bit further than Mp and weight metrics… Beside its fancy retro design the Df has a strong argument in how its sensor renders colors (brilliantly if you ask me J). And what is the best way to get 100% out of a sensor? Simply put it behind the best possible lens! The Otus is not only about sharpness, it’s also excellent with contrast and colors!

Let’s now forget the technicalities and focus on the user experience: I just came back from a 10 days trip to Varanasi (India) and shot from 6am to 8pm almost non-stop using the Df / Otus combo 90% of the time.

First thing I have to admit is yes, walking >12h a day with an Otus around your neck is painful, really painful. I even had a blister on the finger I use to support the weight of the camera while shooting… That said, travelling more than 12h in economy class from Zurich to Varanasi is also painful, so the Otus weight is just a small additional element of discomfort…

The only thing I really don’t like is the lack of weather sealing… Maybe we’re not so many to use them outside of a studio but still, that would be appreciated Mr Zeiss…

So yes, it’s not a trouble-free experience, but what you get in return is still worth the hassle: the haptic of both the Df and Otus are just pure pleasure and contribute a lot to the fun of shooting. The manual focus is butter smooth and the finishing of the lens is just perfect…. Even if I’m not a big fan of the rubber band on the focusing ring: it’s nice looking and very comfortable but does not go well with strong anti-mosquito sprays (the formula attacks rubber). I managed not to damage the lens but had to be extra careful.

Then of course having the best possible optical performance is also very enjoyable: aperture becomes irrelevant in terms of sharpness (f1.4 is as good as f16), you just chose it according to the depth of field you’re looking for. Manual focusing requires a bit of practice but after getting used to the camera / lens combo I easily achieved 70-80% spot on shots. Moving subjects are a bit more challenging but it’s more a question of shooting style: instead of running behind the subject trying to nail the focus you just chose a good spot, prepare your focus, and wait for something / somebody interesting to enter the frame for 100% success. I occasionally used a tripod but could probably have done without.

Actually beside gear the most important thing simply remains the “access”: I was very lucky to be with a local friend who knows everything (and almost everybody) in Varanasi so it made finding the right spots a lot easier… He’s occasionally offering his services as a guide so feel free to reach out to me via my facebook page if you want his contact.

Enough talks for now, here is the set titled “Varanasi dream” because as a friend said these images show Varanasi as you could see it in a dream.

CLICK ON THE IMAGES TO SEE THEM MUCH CRISPER, MORE COLORFUL and FOR AN OVERALL BETTER VERSION!

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You can find more of my work here: https://www.facebook.com/lumiere.exterieure

Thanks for reading,

Sebastien Bey-Haut

65 Comments

  1. Very nice fotos, love the colors and depth! May I assume using the Df no flash was used? Fotos were taken with max open aperture? I understand the Df has great low light shooting ability….
    Tks,

  2. Great images and you are absolutely right about the Otus being about more than just sharpness. I use the Otus (and other assorted Zeiss primes) on a Canon 6D, which has slightly higher resolution at 20, but is also decidedly low-fi when look at on a spec chart. Were lower resolution cameras excel, including the Df and the 6D) is in color and high-ISO sensitivity.

    The Otus on the 6D is my favorite combination for most event photography. I’d probably leave it at home in favor of my Leica M-E and 50 Summilux (not as good, but MUCH lighter) for a longer trip, but there is no denying the incredible rendering of the Otus.

  3. Stunningly beautiful images. But didn’t you sometimes miss something a little wider than the Otus?

  4. Hi Sebastian, Great images, thanks for sharing
    Would be great to connect as I would love to get in touch with your guide next time I’m in India.
    Cant find you on FB
    All the best
    Mark

  5. Love these pictures. I have to say that I’ve always thought the Nikon DF to be a vastly underated camera that was never given the recognition it really deserved. I suspect that because it was sidelined and quietly discontinued, it will become a sought after classic in the future.

    • On the contrary, it was an anomaly then and has been discontinued for very good reason, some companies do Retro well, look at the lineage of the M series Leica series.

      The Df was a daft design-led old-blokes’ fantasy that has been culled for every good reason under the sun, it had a 16MB chip in the days when we’re headed from 36 towards the 50’s, came with a 50mm f1.8, it did not feature video and the pricing was just hilarious; plus almost no one wanted it.

      It lost its worth the moment it left the shop, so aspirational was it, akin to bringing back the ox and wagon in an age of the HGV wagon / lorry.

      A complete waste of new tooling, worth maybe something akin to its purchase price in 75yrs time?

    • I had the pleasure of owning a Df for a while and regret letting it go. The sensor was fantastic, perhaps the best full-frame sensor for my use ever made. My only problem with it was the lack of interchangeable focusing screens, which I really need as I shoot almost entirely manual focus.

      • There ARE focusing screens for the Df, i got mine at focusingscreen.com ; it is not a katzeye but …, i only have manual lenses ( nikkor 50mm1.2 105mm1.8…) and it is really accurate.
        Worth trying

  6. Hi Sebastian, Amazing and beautiful pictures. Would like to connect on FB to get details of your guide but can’t find you
    Look forward to hearing from you
    Mark Seymour

  7. Lovely photos and beautiful color. The Canon 6D appears to claim the current title of “lightest” full-frame DSLR, being about 30 grams lighter than the Nikon Df, although the Df may be a bit smaller. Not that it would make much difference with a lens as heavy as the Otus.

  8. Great images, great composition, and the colour just grabs you by the throat.

    One comment: I stopped hanging a camera (of whatever weight and size) from my neck a long time ago. It’s incredibly annoying and you end up with a bruise on your chestbone.

    I use (for a D810 plus 600 grs primes) a Gordy’s wriststrap, the camera just dangling, using only a few fingers to hold it, and a Domke canvas bag for the rest of the gear if any, worn messenger bag style.

    It’s doable, no neck pains (or chestbone bruises).

    • Not every image, portrait or otherwise – should entail itself to have a smiling, jovial character in them. The world isn’t all about happiness and ‘tourist smiles’ and there is much to see in a particular individual when you continue shooting a scene well past the usual ‘tourist smile’ that some people give you. The subjects, personally, don’t look displeased at all – there’s a genuine look of intrigue in their faces, and the images are MUCH stronger because of this. McCurry didn’t get to where he is today by shooting images and publishing books full of smiling people from around the world.

  9. beautiful images. the jumping boy is a fantastic catch. One query. in the 11th photo ( the one with two cows), was the over exposure of the temple sanctum intentional ?

    Thanks for sharing the images. Varanasi is in my list of places to visit and being an Indian , photos like yours encourage me to make the trip sooner.

  10. Wonderful photographs. While the colors are great in all of them, my favorites are: The cautious young woman, the guarded man reading his newspaper, the boy jumping (wonderful moment,) and the sad dog laying in the street. Well done.

    • Are you making any money from these travel images, such as with Getty or similar, or are you commissioned to take them or are you writing travel articles to accompany your images, or do you have a longer term project?

      Or is this purely for the travel / adventure?

      In and of themselves they’re fine, a quiet, back street view of Varanasi, minus all the crowds and hubbub, the Ganges and the daily ceremonies.

      • Hi,

        Pure travel / fun adventure 🙂 I occasionally sell some prints but that’s not the main driver.

        Regards

        Sebastien

    • Hi,

      Thanks for the kind words. Shot raw, developed in LR using “Camera standard” profile + some personal tweaks here and there but nothing extra fancy.

      Regards

      Sebastien

  11. I kind of like this “wrong combinations”. No one should dictate us what to use. Congratulations, great photos!

  12. Your photos are super and it must be an inspiration to have such a great camera and super optic .
    I love manual focus and don’t feel the same sense of ownership of the photo when it is a product of auto focus. Let’s hope work like this inspires more people to shoot manual.

  13. Like the compositions,colours and the tones. The lens is outstanding as it should be for a Zeiss lens in this price range. The DF also has one of the best sensors out there for tonal rendering and grainless photos at higher iso’s. I use a 50mm f2 Zeiss makro planar on my df and the combo just shines.

  14. WOW, this is really beautiful work. my favorite pic is the man all in blue with the red spot on his forehead. This is really inspiring. thank yo for sharing with us Sebastien. And its also good to know someone love his Df as much as i love mine.

  15. WOW! Superlative images. I almost sold my Df recently, but didn’t. Now I’d better think about getting that Otus! 😉

    • Hi Alex,

      There is a “reasonable” amount of post processing in LR and Nik Sharpener. The Otus gives a very good starting point but a bit of software tweaking is still needed to get the most of the files (that said, I used different sharpening settings for the Otus vs my other lenses, the Otus requires a much “softer” approach of sharpening)

  16. You can’t help but ogle at the beautiful colors, but there’s so many with excellent use of darkness and light! Wonderful composition on many too! Well worth carrying that equipment!

  17. To be honest, at first i thought – who would put such a lens on a nikon df – but the colors and the clarity are so amazing!

  18. First of all, You’ve just blown my mind ! Some of your pictures are fantastic, I especially like the one with the old man and the bell. Congrats ! The colors, the sharpness, the depth of field, the light, everything fits together in the pictures. The composition is smart. refreshing !

  19. Great shots and colorful too.
    I also got pain in the neck of carrying my M240 with a 50 mm for hours. It had no weather sealing. I sold it off with some profit and bought a brand-new Lumix GX8. Lightweight, inaudible, handy.

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